Draft: Writing dialogue for the Wesnoth game

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Simons Mith
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Draft: Writing dialogue for the Wesnoth game

Post by Simons Mith » October 9th, 2008, 5:15 pm

This [unfinished] article is specifically focused on writing scenario dialogue.
See also the Campaign Design How-To thread (and the link to http://www.catb.org/~esr/wesnoth/campai ... howto.html)
which also considers this area and provides some excellent advice. Before
I write more I wanted to get some feedback on the bits produced so far.

I haven't played all the Wesnoth campaigns by any means, although I have
read the WML code for several that I haven't yet played through.
Unfortunately I am often struck by how often supposedly fantasy characters,
living in a word with magic, elves, trolls and dragons, talk like modern
speakers - frequently modern Americans. This is most noticeable when the
characters start bantering with one another - for many Wesnoth
scenario-writers, the tone of what they write becomes more modern as it
becomes lighter and more humorous.

This can significantly harm the tone of the game. I am still scarred by the
Dungeons and Dragons cartoon. Getting reminded of that when I'm playing
Wesnoth does not do me good.

Writing really good dialogue all the time is difficult. But there are
systematic ways a campaign writer can eliminate some of the more obvious
anachronisms and ensure that character dialog is acceptable even if it isn't
stellar. If you can manage that, and the campaign has a good plot, players
will be more than happy. But just as a bad plot can spoil a campaign, so too
can clunky or inconsistent dialogue.


Word count:

A typical scenario should have perhaps 150-300 words of dialog. 150 words is
15 ten-word sentences. There may be many versions of alternative dialogue in
the scenario file, but the player should not generally see more than about a
dozen dialog windows during a scenario.

Exceptions apply during the first scenario and at major plot stages in the
campaign. You can get away with more text - perhaps 2-3 times as much -
when scene-setting or providing information that drives the plot. If you need
more dialogue than that, think about writing a cut-scene scenario and has
been done in The Rise of Wesnoth campaign.

In general, inter-scenario blocks of purple prose (referred to as text
blocks from now on) to set the scene should be kept pared short whenever
possible, especially if they are not well-written, because increasing
numbers of players will just skip past them. This especially applies when
no-one has yet drawn the scene-setting artwork to go with the description.
Two or three black screens with a paragraph of badly-written prose on each
will put a lot of people off. And once they've started skipping blocks of
text, they may never get to find out if the writing quality improves later
on.

[Note to devs; could the scrolltext code used for the game credits be made
available as an alternative display mode for in-scenario text blocks? Just a
thought.]


Text blocks

When writing text blocks, decide what style you want to use and - in
general - keep it consistent for the campaign. Are you going to write from
the point of view of an omniscient third-person narrator? This is very
common. But if so, keep the tone neutral, factual and (mostly)
non-judgmental. If a neutral narrator calls a character 'the most evil elf
ever to live' then that should by and large be true. If the campaign is
about that elf, and how he wasn't as bad as history painted him, then you
need to 'spin' what the narrator says a bit. Describe him as
'widely-believed to be the most evil elf ever to live'. To do otherwise
compromises the neutral position of the narrator. The trick is doing this
subtly enough that players don't pick up on it, which takes some care.

Decide also if you are going to use present or past tense. With the present
tense, the assumption is that the narrator doesn't know what's going to
happen next, whereas with the past tense it's implied that the whole
campaign is now in the past and there has been time to think back on what
happened and analyse it. This will subtly inform how you write the lead-in
for each scenario.

However, if you fill the text blocks with 'in-game' source material - such
as the writings of a sage, the evil elf's diary, extracts of letters between
the characters, sections of epic verse, then you don't have to be impartial,
but you /do/ have to make sure the tone and writing style is appropriate to
the author you're using. For example, think of the difference between the
diaries of Harry Flashman written by himself, and a book on Harry Flashman
by a historian a few centuries later. Authorised (and unauthorised)
biographers would probably take different approaches again.

You can mix different modes of presentation. An interesting campaign might
show a series of scenarios from different viewpoints - first elven, then
dwarven, and so on, with the text-blocks reflecting this.


Unique-character dialogue

By 'unique-character dialogue' I mean words that would only be spoken by
one character - for example, in Heir to the Throne, spoken by Konrad or
Delfador. In some cases you know the character will be present (or not)
because they are plot-critical - if they've died, that means you've
already lost an earlier scenario. In other cases, you may have introduced an
interesting character along the way, and, provided they haven't been killed
off in the meantime, they may say something in their own style.

When writing a campaign, it is far simpler to make all unique characters
plot-critical. That way, you can precisely control who says
what. Unfortunately, introducing non-vital characters who may or may not be
there and hence may or may not say something is what makes campaigns
interesting. So it's a tradeoff. Conversation trees can get very complicated
if you have multiple optional characters, especially if they're talkative.

Limiting the scenario wordcount does help with this, as does 'pairing up'
characters - so that both must be present before some piece of dialogue
occurs. Finally, you may want to treat the presence of a character as a
censor - i.e. if character A is present, character C keeps quiet. All of
these tricks help prevent the available dialogue combinations that you will
have to work through (and debug) from growing out of control.


Generic dialogue

Generic dialogue means things like 'I cannot open the chest' that could be
spoken by any unit to perform a particular action - usually moving to a
specific hex. However, bear in mind that occasionally one of the unique
characters may perform that action. Watch out for cases where the leader
performs some generic action, speaks the generic message, and then
answers himself with an instruction on what to do next. And while it's rarer,
if a side has units that cannot speak (e.g. bats), make sure they don't suddenly
come out with generic dialogue.


Tone

Pay attention to the tone of dialogue and keep it reasonably consistent
across a campaign. Characters may show more levity in 'easy' scenarios, and
are likely to be much more grim in difficult scenarios. Watch out for
writing jokes that could trigger just after a popular character dies.


Race and species

I would suggest that in Wesnoth, you should usually be able to tell what
race a unit is from the way they speak. This requires you to decide general
racial differences between how things are said. Perhaps elves rarely use
contractions. Perhaps trolls have trouble prouncing 'th' and rarely use
anything other than the present tense. Existing Wesnoth campaigns have
started to establish speaking styles for varying racial groups, but I don't
believe these are yet set in stone. And for a custom campaign, if you wanted
New York elves fighting Russian trolls, you could certainly do it. As time
goes on I'd expect a consensus to form on how the different Wesnoth races
speak - particularly the more troublesome ones such as woses, drakes,
nagas etc. But if your campaign isn't set in Wesnoth, you will always have
the freedom to do things your own way.

[I plan to come back later and insert some specific notes on how the Wesnoth
races speak, referring to the campaigns that seem to do them best, and with
some examples.]


Historical vocabulary

Vocabulary changes over the centuries. No-one that I am aware of has yet
tried to write a Wesnoth campaign with Chaucer-, Shakespeare- or
Malory-style dialogue, or in the style of a Norse or Greek epic poem. You
can greatly change the tone of a campaign by user older words, older
spellings, or different word orders. Do watch out for gratingly modern
phrases or turns of expression and try to avoid them. For example, simple
things like 'OK', or 'Great. Now we just have to defeat two liches at the
same time', or 'We wasn't very bright, was he?'.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is probably not the right sort of tone for most
Wesnoth games. Xena Warrior Princess probably isn't much better - unless
that's the tone you actually intend. The problem arises when you think
you're writing Lord of the Rings and yet it's coming across as Buffy to your
readers.

Even when a phrase isn't modern, if most readers think it is, using it will
spoil the tone of your campaign. Using "Not!" to reverse the sense of the
previous sentence is older than you think, but it now tends to date itself
to, what, the late 1980s/early 90s? Probably not what you're after.

When using historical words, I advise using them sparingly, and otherwise
keep the dialogue more or less neutral. For example, if you were to use
'wot' for 'say', 'an' for 'if', 'trow' for 'think', 'wean' for suppose,
'thee', 'thou', 'here', 'there' and 'yonder' and a few archaic spellings,
('y' in place of 'i' for example, and constructs such as rede instead of
read) then that's probably more than enough. But in order to use such words
at all, you do need to understand how they're used - a simple
search-and-replace is not going to work.


Class

Characters of different classes speak differently. I think you should often
be able to tell a Horseman apart from a Thug or Thief. Lots of factors feed
in to this; Level, for example. Higher-level characters are usually more
refined - or at least better-briefed. Exceptions arise for high-level
'brute' classes such as thugs or berserkers, while mages and elves are
likely better-educated even at lower levels. You do have to make some
decisions about how different classes will speak. The differences won't be
enormous, and there will be exceptions - no reason you can't have the
occasional refined ruffian, if you want one.


Units learn from and copy one another

Members of an army led by Prince Konrad will speak and behave differently
from a rag-tag group of ruffians trying to escape encroaching orcs. In
particular, senior members of Konrad's army will probably have been given at
least a basic briefing in how to behave in the presence of royalty. They'll
generally say 'Your highness' or at least 'Sir', rather than 'Ere, boss'. In
other words, a character's dialogue depends in large part on the way those
around them speak, even when most of that speech is taking place off-camera.

Now, the Mage Delfador doesn't talk to Konrad in a particularly formal
way. But then he's an Elder Mage, so he gets a certain amount of licence
that other characters wouldn't. Furthermore, he's known Konrad all his life,
and the two have settled into a student/mentor relationship. It's /not/ that
Delfador doesn't know the correct forms of address - in formal occasions
he'd use them correctly, after allowing for whatever licence he gets for
being the Old Man of Wesnoth Magic.


Take account of a unit's innate knowledge

When Prince Konrad meets another noble, he should know exactly
how to act, because nobles are taught correct etiquette. They do it
automatically, without thinking. So if you're writing for Prince Konrad,
you should probably look up what the correct etiquette is so you know
how to write his dialogue. Of course, correct real-world etiquette is not
the same as correct Wesnoth etiquette, although it gives some general
pointers. You can then 'translate' these to the Wesnoth setting and you
something that sounds credible. A lot of the noble dialogue I've read
sounds like it's been written by people who have no idea how they should
speak in these occasions, and the result is a lot of George Lucas-level
dialogue, to be honest.

Similarly, it's a fair assumption (bordering on cliche) that dwarves know a
lot about stone-carving, while elves are plant-obsessed. You can sometimes
factor that in to what you have them say.


Mood

Is the speaker confident, nervous, confused, embarassed, panicked,
distracted, etc.? You can write their dialogue in a way that reinforces the
atmosphere you want for the scenario.


Medium

Is the character speaking, shouting, writing or reading something aloud?
This will also affect what they say.


Gender

Is the speaker male, female, or a creature like a wose or skeleton which is
presumably above such details? It will be rare that this affects what's
said, but it's still worth bearing in mind just for those cases where the
possibility does arise. Of course, many standard units (heavy infantrymen,
orc warriors ...) only cover one gender anyway.


Geography

This is often too detailed to be considered for Wesnoth purposes, but people
from different regions do carry different accents. This can sometimes affect
campaign dialogue; if a player travels to some far-off region in order to
recruit some type of unit, the supposition is that those units will carry
the related regional accent. It's especially true in a medieval setting
where long-distance travel is assumed to be rare. It sometimes leads to
regional accents becoming associated with specific unit types, reinforcing
the points made under 'Class'.


Who says what

I've listed the major factors likely to have a bearing on how something is
said. When writing unique-character dialogue, matters are usually simpler.
When writing generic dialogue, you either have to make it so bland that
/any/ character could speak it (including unique characters), or you have to
set up multiple versions of the text. Most scenarios keep things completely
generic, which is a shame, but understandable. If you want to customise
things more, start by listing every possible character who could say the
line. This is simpler if the player only has a very short list of
recruitable unit types. For example, if you know that a piece of dialogue
can only possibly be said by a Dwarven Fighter or Thunderer, then you can
customise it much more precisely.

The longer the unit list, the more generic you will probably have to be.
Don't forget to allow for second, third and higher-level units. In some
scenarios you might have to worry about an allied unit triggering the
dialogue. However, occasionally customising things for certain unit types,
or at certain times of day - when you can safely do so - allows you to
introduce some subtle elements of flavour. A mage reading an inscription
might remark in passing that it was obviously carved by dwarves, while a
troll might just say, 'Ri-ting. Overrated.' Once you've got the basics right
- good plot, decent main-character dialogue, little touches like these can
add a lot to your campaign.


Foreshadow restrictions

If you have decided that in your campaign, only mages are literate - or,
for example, that only elves can read elvish, it's polite to set things up
to give the player fair warning. A simple way to do this is to do something
like having a harmless notice near the player's start position; when he
sends a non-mage to read it, then you can give him an 'I can't read'
message. And then if the player has a mage present, let him pipe up with
'I'll read it,' and otherwise have the leader say 'Illiterate fool! Very
well; it seems I must hire a mage.'

Particularly when playing a scenario for the first time, it's very annoying
to unknowingly send an inappropriate unit on a wild goose chase, and then
have to waste turns sending the right one. Yes, sometimes that is a
mistake that should cost the player the scenario. But particularly if the
units would know something the player doesn't, you need to make sure that
the in-character knowledge his units have is transferred to the player as
gracefully as possible and in a timely manner. I called Delfador a few
choice words when he let me get all the way across one map before letting
me know I needed to go to a different location. The senile old coot should
have warned me earlier. Conversely, if a new objective comes up halfway
through a scenario, I think the scenario designer should take some steps
to make sure the benefits of using prior knowledge are toned down slightly.
Other campaign designers may have differing views on how much this matters.


Sources for dialogue

Where to get example dialogue? Other Wesnoth campaigns are the most
obvious starting point. After that, probably comics and graphic novels are
a good place to continue. After that, roleplaying games and fantasy fiction.
If you want a more historical tone, that probably is going to require looking at
something historically appropriate so that you can get your eye in. It
doesn't matter hugely whether you copy the style from Chaucer,
Shakespeare, Malory, Homer, or from Cyrano de Bergerac, the Three
Musketeers, Beowulf, Sharpe or the Illiad. Just selecting a suitable and
distinctive writing style will help set a campaign tone for you.

Comics have broadly similar word-count restrictions to a typical Wesnoth
scenario. If you can imagine your campaign as a fantasy comic, you're
probably on about the right track. Especially if it's a good fantasy
comic. I'd suggest treating the dialogue for one scenario as being
equivalent to 2-4 comic-book pages, and an entire campaign as equivalent to
a graphic novel. The amount of text spoken by a character in Wesnoth can be
a bit more than that in the average speech- or thought-bubble, but not much
more; comic speech- and thought-bubbles are quicker and easier to read than
the Wesnoth pop-up dialogues. If you want to do more with the inter-scenario
text blocks, you could look at anything from epic poems to Le Mort D'Arthur
to old military orders. It will take some research, but if you care about your
campaign that effort is the sort of thing that will raise its quality above the
average.


Poetry

Use poetry sparingly - it will cause a lot of players to reach for the
'Skip' button.


Use interesting characters

Having introduced an interesting character to the party, use them! If they
only say something when they're introduced and then when they die, that's a
waste. Allocate 0-3 lines of dialogue to them per scenario; perhaps 12-20
lines over the length of a campaign. They don't have to speak in every
scenario - in fact they probably shouldn't - but at least have them say
enough to establish why the other characters like - or dislike - them. If
nothing else, you can use them occasionally to provide information that will
make the coming scenario easier, or provide additional options for the
player to take. Not having those options available is an additional penalty
for letting them get killed earlier on, so it increases their value.
Sometimes, of course, their presence might be a disadvantage, not a bonus.


Number of speakers

Limit the number of speakers to 3-5 in any one section of dialogue. Usually
that means two main speakers and 0-3 other characters making smaller
contributions. This helps prevent conversations growing excessively long,
and helps a bit with debugging. If conversations get too long, players tend
to start clicking through them without reading them. In Wesnoth, the trick
is to write something long enough to convey all the information needed - and
add a bit of character development - but short enough that players are
prepared to read it every time they play through a campaign. I would advise
erring on the side of too short rather than too long - writing dialogue is
often more fun for the scenario-writer than reading it is for the player -
so it's important not to be too self-indulgent.


Vary the dialogue structure

Probably the most common dialogue structure in Wesnoth is for Leader A to
talk to person B, and after several rounds coming to a decision. This should
be varied occasionally; for example have B and C arguing a course while A
just listens; then have A make his decision at the end of the discussion.
That's a good way of giving an interesting character his chance to make his
mark on the campaign; and there's little danger the leader won't get ample
speaking time anyway - after all, the campaign's written around him. Perhaps
try writing the scenario setup in the form of an interrogation, or a bargain
or negotiation, or even force the player to deal with the mess after another
character says or does something rash. You could even run a side scenario
with the second character as the leader, followed by a 'rescue the henchman
from the surrounding orcs' scenario.

[Edit: Fixed wonky word wrap. The perils of cut-and-paste from an external editor...]
 

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beetlenaut
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Re: Draft: Writing dialogue for the Wesnoth game

Post by beetlenaut » October 11th, 2008, 8:22 pm

This is pretty good. I think it should go on the wiki linked to the "create" page.
Campaigns: Dead Water,
The Founding of Borstep,
Secrets of the Ancients,
and WML Guide

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Simons Mith
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Re: Draft: Writing dialogue for the Wesnoth game

Post by Simons Mith » June 30th, 2009, 8:34 pm

*Bump* Can this be moved to the writing forum, please? Done.
Thx.
 

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Re: Draft: Writing dialogue for the Wesnoth game

Post by The Great Rings » July 1st, 2009, 12:50 am

First, I want to say that you obviously put considerable thought and effort into this, and that I actually am inclined to agree with a lot of what you said. If my reply seems overly negative, it is because it makes more sense to focus on the parts I question or disagree with than to throw in a dozen lines of "I agree." :)

Also, if my complaints seem somewhat nitpicky, that is probably because, even if something sounds good as a general rule, there are often legitimate exceptions, and while you appear to be aware of this, I wish to emphasize the point, as it would do little good to have new writers feel limited to following a particular format at all times or to replace clumsy dialog with formulaic dialog by creating the impression that Wesnoth campaigns are "supposed" to be written in a particular way.

Or to put it simply, I feel that a lot of ideas for improving Wesnoth's stories and dialog should probably be presented as general guidelines/suggestions, not hard and fast rules for good writing.
Simons Mith wrote:Word count:

A typical scenario should have perhaps 150-300 words of dialog. 150 words is
15 ten-word sentences. There may be many versions of alternative dialogue in
the scenario file, but the player should not generally see more than about a
dozen dialog windows during a scenario.
On what do you base this? An average taken from various campaigns? A gut feeling?

While I agree that its generally good to limit dialog, I can probably find scenarios (as you yourself noted later on) that run over this limit, and which need to for a variety of reasons. In any case, suggesting a hard and fast limit of any kind is something I would reject out of hand.
Race and species

I would suggest that in Wesnoth, you should usually be able to tell what
race a unit is from the way they speak. This requires you to decide general
racial differences between how things are said. Perhaps elves rarely use
contractions. Perhaps trolls have trouble prouncing 'th' and rarely use
anything other than the present tense. Existing Wesnoth campaigns have
started to establish speaking styles for varying racial groups, but I don't
believe these are yet set in stone. And for a custom campaign, if you wanted
New York elves fighting Russian trolls, you could certainly do it. As time
goes on I'd expect a consensus to form on how the different Wesnoth races
speak - particularly the more troublesome ones such as woses, drakes,
nagas etc. But if your campaign isn't set in Wesnoth, you will always have
the freedom to do things your own way.
I will address this specifically because I have previously made a point of arguing against racial steriotyping in fantasy, as it limits creativity and originality, and harms suspension of disbelief. While I agree that there might be physical limitations on the sounds that, say, a troll was capable of making, I also feel that saying "all trolls have to talk this way" would be a questionable decision at best. Language and accent are largely cultural, and if an elf was brought up among dwarves and not elves, I would find it more logical to have a dwarvish accent than to talk like other elves simply because it was an elf.
[I plan to come back later and insert some specific notes on how the Wesnoth
races speak, referring to the campaigns that seem to do them best, and with
some examples.]
And I plan on having a fun time posting my counter arguments.
Similarly, it's a fair assumption (bordering on cliche) that dwarves know a
lot about stone-carving, while elves are plant-obsessed. You can sometimes
factor that in to what you have them say.
I took the liberty of bolding the problematic part. :wink:
Geography

This is often too detailed to be considered for Wesnoth purposes, but people
from different regions do carry different accents.
I don't know about "too detailed." Not strictly nessissary, I'll agree, but those little details the reader doesn't consciously notice are important.

Ultimately fiction, especially fantasy, relies on the suspension of disbelief. It has to seem genuine, "real," to have a meaningful impact, or to maintain the viewer's interest. In order to make the fantastical seem real, two things are of paramount importance when it comes to plot, dialog, and pretty much everything else: it ultimately comes down to internal consistency (whatever universe the story is set in follows certain rules that do not contradict themselves), and second, detail. Its often the little details that add up to give a sense of depth and realism to a world.

Questions and criticisms aside though, I'd like to thank you for putting the time an effort into this post in an attempt to improve the writing standards of Wesnoth. Actually, you've made me want to put up a similar thread regarding suggestions for writing good plots and stories, but if anyone more qualified wishes to take the lead there, I'll leave it to them.
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Re: Draft: Writing dialogue for the Wesnoth game

Post by Simons Mith » July 1st, 2009, 7:17 pm

I've got no problems with writing material only for someone else to cite it and say it's wrong, provided they can provide some reason for why they think it's wrong. I usually take the view that 'written-down and flagged as wrong' is of greater practical use than 'not written-down at all', becase it shows what not to do. So by all means go ahead and quibble; I'd quite like to see opinions crystallising on the various subjects I've raised. I really should actually do a proper word count on some campaigns and see what the exact wordcount figures are. I did do a quick scan of HttT when I wrote the above, but some precise figures from several campaigns of different styles would be useful.
 

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